Saturday, January 26, 2008

French Made

It's been far too long since I had any sort of Dinner Club gathering for selected students and friends, but recently I've been inspired to put on my thinking toque.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to the Splendid Table podcast and heard a woman extolling the virtues of making a simple soufflé for a dinner party. It had been years since I'd made a
soufflé, but suddenly that sounded like just the thing to get our little group jump-started once more.

So I planned a very restrained, simple French menu (featuring local foods), invited my guests –- the faithful Persephone, She Who Cannot Be Labeled, the Contradance Queen (someone with whom I definitely should have struck up an acquaintance long before this!), and der Freiburger -– and started off the day by baking a loaf of French bread.

I had some difficulty with the dough because my instant yeast really is too old (and is now gone, alas), but I eventually managed to shape it into a dense baguette, then joined the ends to make a wreath and snipped the dough down and turned the pieces like an épi, or a sheaf of wheat. (Obviously that effect would have been more obvious had I left the loaf in the baguette shape.) It's not quite what I had hoped for, but everyone seemed well satisfied with the bread.

Der Freiburger arrived early as he had expressed a keen interest in learning how to make a
soufflé. Not wanting to discourage any sort of curiosity where the kitchen is concerned, I welcomed him and immediately put him to work whisking the béchamel base for the soufflé and then whisking egg yolks while I power-whipped the egg whites in the monster mixer. (WOW.)

Explaining the whys and wherefores along the way, I took him through the recipe step by step, realizing that the recipe was far easier than I had remembered it. And once we had scooped the mixture into the prepared pan and wrapped a parchment collar around it, we slid it into the oven to bake while we made dessert. (More on that in a moment.)

The last menu item to make was green beans almondine, one of my favorites from growing up in the Chef Mother's kitchen. I had thawed a bag of organic green beans from last year's farmers' market, and while those drained, I melted butter in a saucepan and toasted slivered almonds. The beans got tossed in with the nuts, just to warm everything up before serving. (Sorry, no photos.)

Then, once everyone had arrived, the timer on the oven went off, and out came a glorious mixture of eggs, cheese, milk, and air.

Most impressive, especially when seen from the side!:

We partook of dinner heartily, cleaning out the soufflé dish and nearly all of the beans, without feeling stuffed afterwards. (That's one of the beauties of soufflé: it looks really rich, but it's really fairly light and pleasant, filling you without pushing the edges.)

After that, of course, dessert took center stage. I brought out my recipe for dark chocolate pots de crème, making a thick, luscious, dangerously dark pudding from 99% Scharffen Berger unsweetened chocolate (oh, how I heart you, SB!), and topping it with a spectacular cinnamon and hazelnut crumble.

The first bite resulted in a collective moment of reverent silence and savoring, with contented sighs following soon after. (It is a very good dessert, I agree.)

All in all, it turned out to be an incredibly successful dinner with comparatively little work, and it never ceases to delight me to find new people to sample new dishes and to appreciate the joys of local food. In fact, we had such a grand time that I'm already planning our next soirée: a Moroccan feast to chase away the winter blues.

And the RSVPs are already coming in...!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I'm Pudding You On

Words have unexpected power.

Take the word "pudding." For some reason, late last week I got the notion to make homemade pudding, something I haven't done for a while, and I then had the urge to learn about all different kinds of pudding (bread pudding, Indian pudding, hasty pudding, plum pudding, and so on).

When She Who Cannot Be Labeled came into my office last Friday morning, naturally I began to tell her my grand pudding plans. And at the lone word "pudding," this feisty, fiercely intelligent, punk-goth-looking wisp of a tough chick... giggled.

I couldn't believe it. The young woman who declared she likes her coffee "as black as my soul" (or at least her fingernails) sat there across the desk from me and giggled with such delight that her face turned red and she nearly collapsed on the floor in hysterics.

Okay, I grant you, "pudding" is a silly word, and given that it most likely originates from the French boudin, meaning sausage and nothing like the custardy stuff I love, it really is rather laughable.

But say what you will -– and I will now say "pudding" as much as possible when I see her at work –- there's something wonderful about a word that turns almost anyone into a little kid, giggling with delight.

When I myself was a wee lass, my favorite puddings were tapioca (from scratch; is there any other way?) and butterscotch. The latter, I must confess, generally came from a petite box -– yes, a mix. And I loved it.

A boxed mix won't cut it for me now, of course, so I looked high and low for a recipe for a wholesome homemade butterscotch pudding.

Turns out a butterscotch pudding is the same as a vanilla pudding, save that you use dark brown sugar instead of regular granulated sugar. And I just happened to discover that the local co-op now carries an organic, fair-trade dark brown sugar! Ah, sweet serendipity!

With the right sugar in hand, I mixed some with cornstarch and salt before whisking in local milk and a local egg and heating it all up until it reached the desired point of thickness. And with a little butter and vanilla, and a spell in the refrigerator, I ended up with two dishes of smooth, creamy, delectable butterscotch pudding with a wonderfully comforting molasses finish.

I only made half a recipe, and those two dishes only lasted for two nights. So tonight I decided to revisit the recipe with a twist: instead of the dark brown sugar, I used local maple sugar, and I replaced the vanilla with local maple syrup.

The flavor isn't as strong as the butterscotch (which itself is not as pronounced as in the mix), but that burnt-sugar taste of the maple stood out beautifully against the creamy pudding backdrop. Another winner!

Somehow, cooking the pudding didn't take nearly as long as I had remembered (even with the "instant" mix), so I have a feeling I may end up making pudding more often, both for myself and for the occasional guest.

And really, I'm not pudding you on.

Gardening is School

You know the saying, "When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? For me, the more I write about food, the more everything has to do with food. (And believe me, I go around all day making people hungry because my conversation will eventually roll around to the topic of food.)

Now, with the announcement this week of the Victory Garden Drive, all things related to gardening are hitting my radar screen.

First, I ran into the Absent-Minded Professor (host of my own Victory Garden) at the cafe the other day, and almost immediately he started talking about building a compost bin in his backyard to go along with the raised beds. (Yes!)

Then, at work, I received a pamphlet that had been repaired and was ready to shelve: "Gardening in Elementary Schools," a United States Bureau of Education publication from 1916.

1916! Yes, even then, people were talking about school gardens and working gardening into
the curriculum. This kind of project became especially important in the cities, where children grew up away from farms and the sources of food production.

Not everyone was sold on the idea. One of the many problems of having children work school gardens (or home gardens supported by the schools, often a more popular option as it allowed all produce to stay within the family) was the growing concern over child labor. But as this bulletin's author points out, "Wholesome work is good for boys and girls," comparing the labor of gardening with the less favorable conditions found in mills or other industrial sites where children often worked.

Another reason given for encouraging this sort of labor on the part of schoolchildren was the
"moral" issue of building good citizens. (I'm not sure, but hasn't that notion become somewhat... "quaint"... to our own detriment?) As children took on more responsibility for the gardens they worked, learning how to take care of crops and manage funds received from the sale of those crops, they learned how their work fit into the grander plan of making the cities more livable for everyone, and they looked beyond the garden to see how else they could improve their world.

They should be given to understand that on account of their training they should be leaders in civic improvement, and that they should assume the responsibility of protecting shade trees and other public property (p.45)

Civic responsibility –- what a concept!

The author concedes that "It may be contended that children will not voluntarily conduct garden enterprises without some extra inducement" such as prizes, badges, or school credit (p.70). He agrees that children should receive recognition for their achievements but that such recognition should not become the chief reason for their involvement.

And, of course, there are always obstacles: lack of support from parents or the school board, lack of funds, lack of teachers available to help, etc. But the author points out, "The thoughtful superintendent will realize that the only way to bring about reforms is to convince the public that the work is necessary and desirable" (p.73).

Now, if these school gardens became successful in so many places and did so much good for the children who worked in them, why did we let ourselves be persuaded that we no longer needed them? After all, many people are reviving the idea of school gardens now, and they're meeting with many successes.

So why, oh why, did we heed the voices of "authority" that told us we didn't need our gardens, the farms and the corporations would provide for us? Why did we relinquish control of our food systems and give children the message that that sort of work was beneath us?

And how do we make gardening "cool" for them again?


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Pizza History

As much as I love to cook, I still also really enjoy getting invited out to sample someone else's cooking. And when that someone is the Chef Mother, I don't say no.

My Wonderful Parents arranged to pick me up from work and to take me back to their place for homemade pizza for dinner tonight. Now you know I love making my own pizza from scratch, so this was a real treat: the Chef Mother made a big batch of dough, and My Dear Papa and I spread the dough out on two baking sheets, adding our own selections of toppings, from red sauce to pesto, and from peppers to pepperoni.

While the pizza baked, the Chef Mother told me about the first time she made pizza for her family. She was home from college, where she majored in home economics, and she was very excited about a new dish that was popular on campus. (This was the early 1960s, and pizza was still fairly exotic to many people.)

She went out and bought the pizza dough mix, the sauce, the pepperoni, and the cheese, then proceeded to whip up a pizza to dazzle her family.

Well, the pizza went over well, but my grandmother took her aside afterward and mentioned that what the Chef Mother had spent on the makings for the pizza would have been the entirety of my grandmother's grocery budget for the week.

The Chef Mother told me that this was the first time in her life when she realized how little her family had. But when you consider that the family lived in a small rural town, had an enormous garden, and put up a root cellar full of pickles, jams, fruits, and so on, it’s easy to understand how they didn't suffer from what is now termed food insecurity.

My grandmother, then, being a resourceful person, decided that she could come up with a more frugal approach to making pizza. She used a simple roll dough (somewhat sweeter than what we normally use for pizza dough now) for the crust and made a huge batch so that they could make multiple pizzas and have leftovers. She made her own sauce with tomatoes from the garden as well as basil and oregano. And she replaced the expensive pepperoni with the more economical ground beef.

That became the family's recipe for pizza, and it's one even I remember from my younger days.

Now, of course, it's easier to find reasonably priced ingredients and to add many healthy and wonderful toppings to our pizzas:

My Dear Papa added spinach, peppers, tomatoes, dried tomatoes, pepperoni, and parmesan and fresh mozzarella cheeses to a pizza he split with the Chef Mother.

And I went all out, making half of mine with red sauce and the other with pesto, then scattering multiple vegetables and cheeses at whim. (No, I didn't eat it all at once: the Chef Mother had planned for me to take the rest home for my lunches. A mother still worries, you know.)

It's a far cry from those early homemade pizzas, but the taste of the crust as well as the joy of making dinner a family activity brought back such memories.

And when they invite me back for dinner, I'll be glad to say yes!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Can You Dig It?

Digitized World War II poster from the University of North Texas Libraries database

It's crazy cold outside this week, and the snow blew back in this morning. But my first order of seeds finally arrived today, and I am all excited about getting a garden going this year.

I'm even more excited because of a bit of blog news I picked up over at Eat Close to Home, a local foods blog by an Ann Arbor, MI, resident (take note, Tina!) -- practically next door, as the blogosphere goes!

Many of us have been getting nostalgic over the past few years about Victory Gardens, noting the differences between this war (not to mention the increasing crisis in climate change) and World War II and how none of us are being asked to sacrifice anything. And while we might go about it in our own separate ways, there hasn't been a major movement.

Maybe now that will happen, because Pattie over at FoodShed Planet has sent out a call to action in her Victory Garden Drive. To quote Pattie's enthusiastic call:

Declare victory against lack of control over the quality of your food! Join hands and hoes across our FoodShed Planet to create and inspire new organic gardens. Goal: 2 MILLION new organic gardens in 2008! Spread the manure--and spread the word!

Emily at Eat Close to Home has taken that a step further, offering personalized garden advice to the first five people who requested it on her blog, and she's working regular posts on gardening advice into her writing.

I don't have any claim to being a Master Gardener, like one of my food heroes, but I'm going to pick up the challenge, too:

--I'm going to plant my organic Victory Garden this year on a friend's property, and while I don't expect to provide all of my own food, I'm hoping my crops will be an excellent supplement to what I find at the farmers' market, giving me some foods that I haven't been able to find locally so far (like dried beans and more Asian greens). I'll be sharing that garden with My Dear Papa as well as with the friends in question, so I hope there's plenty to go around!

--And while I don't have extensive knowledge to draw on, I'm willing to TAKE FIVE and offer to the first five people who have not gardened before (or very little) what gardening advice I can give. I probably can't go as far as to visit and help you lay out your organic garden, being without a car, but I will do what I can. If you're interested, drop your request in the comments, and I will do what I can to encourage and support you!

I hope you'll join me this year in planting a Victory Garden and taking back some control over what we eat. It's bound to be an exciting adventure.

And spread the word! We need more gardeners in this world!


Sunday, January 20, 2008

When Winter Hariras Its Ugly Head

You can tell its going to be a cold, cold day when the furnace kicks on about twice as frequently as usual... brrr!

So it's a good thing that I had planned to spend the morning making bread and soup. Not only would both activities keep me moving (and thus warm me up) as well as release some ambient heat into the loft, but the results of my efforts would keep me warm again and again.

I started by making a loaf of buckwheat bread, using local buckwheat and whole wheat flours as well as local sorghum. Sorry, no photo, but suffice it to say that the loaf turned out dark and speckled and substantial-tasting (though not too dense since it rose so well)... just the thing for a cold day!

I also pulled out ingredients to make harira, a Moroccan soup loaded with comfortingly starchy vegetables and the protein packed into both lentils and chickpeas. The last of my potatoes and carrots from the farmers' market went into this spicy stew, along with half a local red onion, a pint of home-canned crushed tomatoes, and a quart of homemade vegetable stock. (I use the recipe found in Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites, if you're wondering.)

But what I love most about this soup is the spice. It combines cinnamon and ginger with turmeric and cayenne pepper –- and I add extra cayenne -– for something that smells a little sweet but packs some heat into every bite. It's the sort of soup that clears out your sinuses, a very useful thing when the air outside has a tendency to freeze the inside of your nose with every inhalation!

The soup simmered while the bread baked, and it's hard to beat that kind of fragrance wafting through your home. Sure, fresh cookies smell wonderful, and so do all other sweet things. But nothing says comfort to me on a cold day than the aroma of a savory soup and a wholesome, yeasty bread.

And when it all tastes so good and warming, well, it can't be beat.

So take that, Old Man Winter. You think you're so cool, but you've got nothing on the hot stuff coming out of my kitchen.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Impastable Dream

You could say I'm on a roll today.

After making crackers, I decided to make more pasta since I polished off the last of last weekend's batch a couple nights ago.

But I thought I'd do something a little different.

The other day, as I was thinking about cooking projects, I thought of several potential variations on pasta that I wanted to try, starting with a spinach pasta that used some of last year's farmers' market spinach in the dough.

So I thawed the spinach in the refrigerator overnight and then pureed it with an egg this morning to add to the flour and salt.

That glorious shade of green worked its way through the dough as I mixed it, offering a striking contrast to the basic past dough recipe (made with unbleached flour this time).

I wrapped up the doughs and set them in the refrigerator for a couple of hours before I was ready to work with them again. Dividing each dough in half, I rolled out half of each into thin sheets.

My idea was this: if it's possible to sandwich herbs between layers of pasta and roll them out again to a thin sheet that presses the herbs more deeply into the dough, why not make two different doughs, sandwich them back to back (with a very light spot-brushing of water between the layers to keep them sticking together), and roll them out again to get a back-to-back sort of pasta?

Well, it worked. One side is the pale golden of the egg-enriched unbleached flour pasta, and the other displays the rich green (covered here in flour) of the spinach. Wow!

I cut the dough into long ribbons to dry, but I also played with some different shapes, twisting a few short lengths into bowties and cutting some squares that I folded corner (almost) to corner for a change of pace.

Of course, I needed to roll out and cut the remaining pasta dough, too, so I ended up with a cooling rack covered with spinach pasta ribbons and another laden with plain pasta, all set out to dry overnight.

The shaped pasta beckoned to me, though, and while I could let the little bowties dry, I knew the folded pieces wouldn't dry well due to their thickness. So I pulled out walnuts, local garlic, some homemade oven-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese to throw together a variation on my usual walnut pasta dish.

The pasta cooked quickly, rising to the surface of the water as it finished, and I sauteed the garlic with the walnuts, adding the tomatoes before topping the pasta with it all... a rich, satisfying meal.

I tell myself that I don’t always have time to make pasta from scratch, but more and more I realize that actually, I do. Only a few minutes are needed to make the dough, maybe ten to fifteen minutes more to roll it out and cut out the ribbons (or make the other shapes), and then I have a stash of pasta to get me through the week. The difference in taste is so worth it, too: when the pasta is very fresh (not even dried), it cooks in no time flat and has an almost creamy texture when I bite into it.

What's impossible -- or even improbable -- about that?

Take a Cracker at This

When I get home from work in the afternoon, I usually feel a little peckish, wanting to snack on a little smackerel of something before I start dinner. Of late, though, I haven't had much on hand to fill that need aside from a bag of pistachios.

That's why I thought I'd better make some crackers this weekend.

It's been a while since I pulled out any of my cracker recipes, but since I also hope to make a pot of spicy soup later, it seemed the perfect thing to make this morning. And though I had vaguely remembered having a potato and herb cracker recipe around, I couldn't find it and decided to make sesame crackers instead.

Now, I've had a few people ask me why I would put the time into making crackers (or pasta) when it's so easy to find organic or whole grain varieties at the store now for relatively little money.

And I would say: Have you seen what's in those store-bought crackers? Almost all the selections now offered contain partially hydrogenated oils, preservatives, and a host of other things I don't know much about... not to mention more sodium than is necessary.

These crackers have six ingredients: unbleached flour, whole wheat flour (the sole local ingredient), salt, toasted sesame seeds, toasted sesame oil, and water. That's it. And though I haven't figured out the cost, I'm pretty sure it's a good deal less than I can find at the store.

Besides, they're not that hard to make!

Like pasta dough, cracker dough pulls together fairly quickly with just a little kneading at the end to get all the crumbs incorporated.

Then you roll it out, cut out the crackers, and arrange them on parchment-covered baking sheets and bake. Really. It's that simple.

And frankly, buying a box of crackers can't offer me the most important thing: the fragrance of the crackers as they bake and get toasty. Heavenly!

I think I'll be able to snack on these for some time to come as they're substantial enough to fill me up quickly, though I may have to make haydari or some other yogurt-based dip to enjoy with them later today.

Wouldn't you like to take a cracker at them, too?

Sesame Crackers

This recipe comes from The King Arthur Flour Baking Companion, with very few changes. I am very fond of sesame crackers, especially to serve with cheese and cucumbers. (The cookbook indicates that these would also be very good with hummus, but I like them with other dips, too.) You can use regular canola oil instead if you prefer a milder cracker, and that would make these crackers then be a great accompaniment for other soups and dishes.

1/2 c sesame seeds
1 c unbleached flour
1 c whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
2 T toasted sesame oil
2 T canola oil
1/2 to 3/4 c cold water

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Toast sesame seeds in a dry skillet, stirring regularly, for about 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool.

In large bowl, whisk together seeds, flours, and salt. Add the oils, stirring until the mixture creates large lumps, then add enough water to pull the dough together without crumbling.

Divide the dough into two pieces and roll it, one piece at a time, until it's about 1/8" thick. Cut dough into squares (or other shapes; experiment!) and transfer crackers to lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheets.

Bake crackers 25-30 minutes or until they're beginning to brown around the edges. (I like mine a touch more brown all around to enhance the sesame flavor; but be careful not to let them scorch!) Remove crackers from the oven and cool completely on wire rack. Store in airtight containers.

Makes about 6 dozen crackers

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Politics of Peas

I don't like to get into partisan politics here when it's so much more inspiring to talk about food. And frankly, I'm already sick of the presidential race that still has another... ten... months to go. (Hmmm, where's the nearest cave...?)

But political satire? I'm all over that. And when it has a pro-vegetarian take, spot-on spoofs of the candidates, and an enthusiastic peanut gallery, I say bring it on.

So go visit The Ethicurean and check out the latest online video from PETA. I promise you meat-loving folks, it's a gentler message than you're used to from the PETA crowd, and you'll laugh just as much as those of us who are vegetarians.

I'm torn between Broccoli Obama and Dennis Kuspinach... they're both so... green!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Kale-ifornia Dreaming

We might see 60-plus-degree days in January here in northern Ohio –- once in a while –- but we're definitely back to winter, with snow, slippery walks, and wind chills that burrow under multiple layers of clothing and make you feel as if you'll never be warm again.

OK, it hasn't been quite that frigid here this week, but it's been on the chilly side, with not much sun to be seen.

(photo courtesy of My Daft Unca)

It's quite obvious, Dear Readers, that this is not a fair-weather state at this time of year, with no tropical breezes wafting through palm trees. (Granted, Florida and California are feeling a bit nippy these days, too, I'm told.)

No, we Ohioans are sturdy folk, accustomed to the onslaught of winter and eating plain because we've got very little in the way of local produce to keep us going this time of year. Right?

Ahem. Well, over at the Ethicurean, both behind the scenes and on the site, we've started an ongoing discussion about seasonal eating and what that means to those of us who aren't fortunate enough to live in the Land of Plenty (or of Too Much, depending on your point of view). I'll contribute to the public discussion this weekend, with an article on winter produce, but you'll find the views of those who adopt both pragmatic and idealistic stances on the matter.

And while I tend toward the idealistic, trying to eat locally as much as possible, even I have my limits.

I've eaten a lot of squash and potatoes this week (under the rubric of "research," naturally), testing recipes and taking photos, and frankly, I've had enough for now. I bought a bunch of kale (not local) at the grocery store yesterday, knowing that I needed a serious infusion of dark leafy greens, and that –- along with the random contents of my fridge –- inspired tonight's dinner:

Here's my temporary restraining order against cabin fever: a pasta dish that is at least half not local. True, I made the pasta from scratch, and the garlic was local, but everything else? That's right, a shocking indulgence from distant climes, using kale, a vegetarian breakfast patty (highly processed, to boot!), half an orange, some Bulgarian feta, olive oil, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

If I may be permitted to share a secret with you, friends... it was good. Very good. Lip-smackingly, lick-the-plate-clean good.

And I don't feel one bit guilty about it.

See, I'm trying to take the approach in my eat-local adventure that it's great to give it my best effort, but sometimes it's just fine to "bend the rules." It's not an all-or-nothing proposition.

I'll get back to cleaning out the freezer and the canned goods and the remaining stored vegetables soon enough. Heaven knows I've got enough put up to get me through most of the rest of the winter!

But tonight, it's worth it to dream a little dream about warmer days and more produce variety.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Spuddy System

So much for the warm weather! The snow is back, and by the time I get home from work, I'm ready for some serious comfort food.

Since I've been working my way through those lovely somsas at lunchtime, and I've been running low on dark leafy greens again, I stopped by the grocery store on the way home to grab some kale and other items.

I thought the ideal dish to go with that steamed kale might be some Indian-spiced potatoes, so I pulled out one of my favorite recipes from The Indian Vegetarian: alu ki sabzi, or diced potatoes in gravy. (Sounds so much better without translation, doesn't it?)

It's an easy dish to throw together since about all you have to do is fry the spices, toss in tomato and cilantro and cook it down, add the diced potatoes and water, and let it simmer. I made it even easier by pulling a few cubes of pureed tomato and cilantro from the freezer (thank you, Foresight!) and tossed those into the frying spices, letting them cook down into a thick, fragrant sauce.

That gave me the time I needed to peel potatoes and a pair of sweet potatoes and to dice them for the dish. Normally I just like the potatoes by themselves in this dish, but since I'm running low on local potatoes and still have an abundance of the sweets -– and since the sweet potatoes added extra nutrition -– well, why not? They're friends, right?

Once I had everything in the pot, I let it simmer about 45 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally, while I got a few other things done. As always, it was worth the wait.

Because of the lengthy simmering period, these potatoes always turn out velvety soft, incredibly well-spiced, and so very, very satisfying. The kale on the side added a nice contrasting, dark flavor, making me feel ever so healthy and virtuous by the end of dinner. (That didn't last long, since I enjoyed a pear-custard bar directly afterward!)

Potatoes and sweet potatoes complement each other so well in dishes like this, where the spices bring out the best of both, that I wonder why I don't combine them more often.

But after a success like this, I know I'll remember to pair them again the next time.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Keeping the Stove Fires Burning

I meant to cook more yesterday, but by mid-afternoon I had run out of steam, so I pushed the bulk of this weekend's cooking to today. When I rolled out of bed, then, I knew I needed to get started early to get everything done. So hang on to your hats -- here's the day's wrap-up:

Since I had set myself a goal of trying to keep my pantry supplied with basic foods, I thought I'd better get some fresh pasta made. While I toasted homemade bread for my breakfast, I pulled together the pasta ingredients, and once breakfast was over, I finished mixing and kneading the dough, setting in the fridge for a while.

Once it had firmed up, I pulled the dough out and rolled it out, cutting it first into long ribbons to dry and then into shorter ribbons that I folded and twisted:

I can't remember the name of this particular kind of pasta (gemelli, maybe?) but thought the chunkier twist would be good for the pasta e ceci I intended to make for dinner tonight.

In the midst of the pasta-making, I started on a new dessert. The Southern Belle gave me a copy of Simply In Season for Christmas, not knowing that I had already read it and loved it but not bought it, and I found a recipe for Pear Custard Bars that would help me use up the last jar of home-canned pears (opened over Christmas for the gingerbread).

I threw together a pecan shortbread base and baked it, and after a while, I returned to the kitchen to whip up the cream cheese filling, adding a bit of candied ginger before topping it with the pear slices and a cinnamon-ginger sugar sprinkle.

Simple, but luscious and wonderful! I'll enjoy those for desserts and possibly my morning coffee breaks this week.

As lunchtime drew near, I pulled out the recipe for somsas, an Uzbek variation on samosas that I've made before, and set up my work space.

Like the pasta dough, the somsa dough pulled together very quickly, and I let it rest while I sauteed one of my onion-garlic-hot pepper disks from the freezer. I mashed the remaining steamed butternut squash, added a variety of spices, and tossed that mixture into the aromatics, letting it all warm up before I filled the turnovers. And a short while later, I had lunch!

The little twist I added to the spices gave the somsa filling a hint of Indian flavors, so I spooned up some of my cantaloupe chutney with lunch. These turnovers are so savory and filling that I know I'll enjoy having them for lunches this week!

After turning to another project for the afternoon, I finally headed back into the kitchen to make dinner. I had pulled two whole tomatoes from the freezer, and after skinning them, I mashed them together with the remaining cooked chickpeas and some more Bulgarian feta. Then, after sauteing some garlic and rosemary (both local, yum), I tossed in the tomato mixture and let it simmer a while before adding the pasta twists.

And there you have it: pasta e ceci! The sauce wasn't quite as smooth as usual, but it still tasted pretty wonderful.

So tonight I'll kick back, prop up my feet, and pat myself on the back for a productive day's work. Those dishes won't last too long, but I feel pretty good about getting back into the swing of cooking this weekend.

Now, where did I put that dessert...?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Falling Into Granola Patterns

Now that the holidays are over, I can slip back into a comfortable weekend routine, which means that, aside from the weekly cleaning, I have more time for cooking!

I still have a quart of vegetable stock in the refrigerator, so I won't need to make a pot of that today, though I'm sure I'll make soup later today or tomorrow. I'm testing a new bread variation, and already the apartment is smelling just a little yeasty and delicious.

But for today, since holiday baking pulled me away from keeping my pantry filled with some of my favorite quick foods, I'm trying to address that lack. So I started my morning baking with a pan of granola.

It's been several months since I made granola, I think, so I've really reached the point of craving it. And while not all the ingredients I chose this morning were local, enough were to satisfy me for today: oats, maple sugar, maple syrup, and a touch of lavender.

I know that last one sounds unusual for granola, but I had decided to throw together dried cranberries, fresh orange peel, and chopped pecans, and somehow the lavender pipe up its little voice and demanded to be tossed in as well.

Who am I to argue with one of my favorite flavors? Especially when it's right?

That little hint of lavender (only 1/2 tsp dried buds) was just enough to transform a familiar flavor combination into something a little mysterious and enticing. What a nice treat for a winter morning!

I'm hoping to make pasta later today, and I'll see what else I make time for over the course of the weekend. After a few days of not wanting to cook, it makes me happy to get back into the kitchen to whip up some good nourishing food.

There's something to be said for falling back into those old patterns...

Friday, January 11, 2008

How to Fritter Away the Week

After all the cooking over the holidays, I finally hit a cooking slump this week. The refrigerator has been full -- of ingredients -- but I just haven't wanted to do much to make a meal out of them.

This evening, though, I knew I was finally ready to tie on the apron and wield my mixing arm. And I had a recipe in mind: "Mediterranean Chickpea Latkes," found on Epicurious.

Since I already had cooked chickpeas (local, thanks to the fair Titania) on hand, along with local garlic, rosemary, egg, and flour, I knew I'd be able to whip up these tempting morsels with no problem. I also had the idea that some of that salty Bulgarian feta and maybe even some steamed local squash would work well in the fritters, too.

So I pulled out the ingredients and got to work.

Since my food processor still hasn't been replaced, I pulled out my pastry cutter and worked together the chickpeas and feta, adding garlic, spices, and some olive oil to ease the work.

I decided that a handful of butternut squash cubes, along with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses, would do wonders for the texture -- not to mention the flavor! So I worked those in, too, mashing and mashing until I had a more workable batter. I added the remaining ingredients, fired up the stove, and spread my wings to fry.

Of course, the first batch turned out a little sloppy as I realized I needed more flour to compensate for my additions to the recipe. But the second batch proved more sturdy, though the fritters still ended up soft and creamy inside with a crispy coating.

My first bite convinced me that I had a winner on my hands: a velvety texture, the perfect combination of spices, the tang of the pomegranate molasses, and just the right amount of substantial nutrition to make me feel like I could just eat these forever. Though I could have easily eaten them completely unadorned, I decided to mix a little plain nonfat yogurt with a bit of pomegranate molasses, and I drizzled that over both the fritters and the steamed broccoli I had cooked to go with the meal.

In my book, it's hard to go wrong with any of these ingredients individually, but when you throw them together in just the right way, the sum of their parts becomes transcendent. And while I still hope to make pasta e ceci this weekend, I'm sort of eyeing the rest of the chickpeas and thinking I might make this dish again instead. (Tough call!)

Sure, I may have frittered away the week -- and tonight! -- but now I'm ready to run rampant in the kitchen, coming up with more delicious dishes.

Chickpea Surprise Fritters

The original recipe, from the December 2001 issue of Bon Appetit via Epicurious, kept the "latkes" fairly simple, seasoning them with just garlic, rosemary, cumin, salt, and pepper. It suggested, however, that a drizzle of pomegranate molasses would make an excellent garnish. If it's good enough for the outside, I say, it's good enough for inside. So I added it to the batter, along with some steamed squash (since that blends so well with the rest of the flavors and adds even more nutrition with no fat), and adapted as needed. The resulting fritters are melt-in-your-mouth good, but don't just take my word for it -- go make some!

1 c cooked chickpeas, drained
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp dried rosemary
1/2 c crumbled feta cheese
1/4 c butternut squash, cubed and steamed
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 T pomegranate molasses
1 large egg
1/4 c whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

In large bowl, mash together chickpeas, garlic, rosemary, feta, squash, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses with a pastry blender until mixture reaches a paste-like consistency. Add the egg and continue to mash until batter has few lumps. Add remaining ingredients and stir until flour is entirely incorporated. (If batter is too thin, add more flour.)

In a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat, heat a thin layer of canola oil. Drop batter into oil with a spatula, forming fritters about 3" to 4" across. Fry until brown and crispy on both sides, turning when needed (usually after a minute or a minute and a half). Lift fritters onto plate with a spatula, blotting excess oil with a paper towel or napkin. Continue with remaining batter, adding extra oil if needed.

If desired, whisk together 1/4 c plain nonfat yogurt with 1 tsp pomegranate molasses to serve as a sauce for the fritters. Serve fritters while still hot.

NOTE: If you don't have pomegranate molasses, you can omit it with no problem. It sure is nice, though!

Makes 6-8 fritters, serving 2 people

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hey, Big Spender!

I love food!

I know, that comes as no surprise to any of my Dear Readers. How could it? But because I love food so much and am committed to eating the best food I can (for the most part; I have my cheap and easy indulgences from time to time, I admit), I'm willing to spend what I need to spend to keep myself well fed.

I know all too well that that attitude and ability automatically puts me into an elite category. I may not make a huge salary, but I have the luxury of being able to feed myself without worrying too much about the cost, and there are many, many people who can't say that.

But having read recently that the average American family spends only 10% of their disposable income on food, I determined to see what my situation really was in comparison.

I've kept detailed account pages for a few years now, so I was able to total my monthly grocery expenditures and monthly expenses for eating out and then figure them as percentages of my income. And here are the totals for 2007:

MonthTotalGroceriesEating Out

Looks pretty extravagant, doesn't it? I don't claim to be a statistical analyst, but let me break it down a little bit for you.

First of all, I don't eat meat. You might think that could account for higher expenditures, but it doesn't. And I don't eat much in the way of highly processed food, especially snack foods and sodas, which are cheap to begin with but add up quickly. No, the reasons go deeper.

Take the "Eating Out" column, for example. My expenditures in that column generally fall into two categories: going out for a coffee or something like it when I write, and going out with friends as a social occasion. The biggest months for that category are August, when I took my family out to the Bistro for a celebration dinner, and October, when I was traveling for vacation and a conference (the conference meals were reimbursed, but I didn't fully include that in my calculations). And while I'm learning to curb my coffee/tea breaks a little bit (note how the figures dropped toward the end of the year), I also don't want to give up eating or drinking out completely because of the social aspect –- a very important part of why we eat anyway!

As for the groceries, do you see the curve in the figures? The months when the farmers' market is open, my expenditures are consistently above 10% and even 15% of my income. It's not because the farmers' market is expensive: my research has regularly shown that my local farmers charge comparable and often lower prices than what I find at the grocery store. No, it's because summer is when I'm buying far more than I will use immediately with the intention of preserving as much of the harvest as possible. I can afford to see my grocery bills go up then because a large part of my free time is spent in food preservation, and thus little of my money is going toward entertainment or other non-essential expenses.

Okay, I know the daunting part of that is that I do spend so much of my free time in the summer canning, drying, freezing, and otherwise preserving the harvest. Yes, it's hard work, and yes, it does limit other possibilities for my time. That's my choice, and it may not be yours. That's fine.

But look at the winter grocery expenditures. They drop considerably -– because aside from perishable items (like dairy and added produce), I'm cooking and eating from the food I've preserved. So all that money and time invested in the summer and fall pays off come winter and into spring.

Yes, I spend a good fifth of my income on food, and that's more than twice the current U.S. average. But I can do that because I'm not spending money on things like automobile maintenance (and gasoline), television and movies, regular live entertainment of any sort (save through the college, and that's free), and a lot of consumer goods. I make do on a lot of other things that aren't as important to me because cooking, writing about food, and sharing food with others has become a vital, joyful part of my life.

I don't bring all this up to prove some simple-minded superiority -– to claim that by spending more on food, I eat better and therefore am better (so laughable!) –- but because I thought it was an interesting exercise for myself personally. I knew that I spent more than most people on food, but I had never really broken it down before or charted the cycle of spending over the year.

Could I spend less on food? Of course! I don't really need to, given how I've structured my life and expenditures aside from food, and I don't really want to, given the happiness I find in breaking bread with friends. I feel like after nearly forty years, I've finally understood what my proper relationship to food should be, and I feel neither deprived nor over-indulged... just grateful.

Maybe that's the real bottom line for our food expenses overall. Sure, we can get cheap food and spend so little of our incomes on our daily allowance of calories. But what does it mean to us overall? Do we actually feel nourished and healthy? Do we feel we can do any better? Or is truly good food out of our reach financially? Part of it depends on our personal choices and how we decide to prioritize our spending, but part of it also depends on how we've structured our food system in the U.S. to deliver cheap food but not as much nutrition as we truly need.

So what are our priorities going to be where food is concerned, both as individuals and as a country?

I guess we'll have to spend plenty more time thinking through that one.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Feta Attraction

Over the holidays, I came home from running errands one morning to find that UPS had attempted to deliver a package that needed my signature, leaving nothing behind for me except a notice.

I hadn't heard from anyone indicating that they had sent me a box, and there was no information on the slip, so I resigned myself to waiting for enlightenment.

On the day after New Year's, I managed to be around when UPS showed up, but as I was headed out the door with the lovely Phoenix, I simply looked at the label, remained just as baffled as before, and shoved the box into my apartment to consider later.

A few hours passed, and when I returned home, I investigated. The return address on the box was some company in New Jersey -- nothing I'd heard of, and nothing recognizable. I opened the box, and even the packing slip offered no clue and no gift note.

But as I sifted out the packaging, it became all too obvious who had sent me the box.

The items to emerge were a couple bars of chocolate and a box of chocolate truffles -- each of which were labeled in Cyrillic. And the final item in the box turned out to be a two-pound container of Bulgarian feta cheese. So who else could be responsible but my good friend Mitch Heat and his beautiful Bulgarian fiancée?

I immediately sent off my thanks and tucked the feta into the refrigerator to wait for the first of many luscious meals. (And no, I haven't even opened the chocolate yet... that will have to wait, too, until I've overcome the surfeit of holiday sweets.)

I had hopes of making pasta e ceci, a rich and creamy Italian pasta involving chickpeas and feta, over the weekend, but it just didn't happen with everything else I had going on. And by the time I got home today, I wasn't up for anything too complicated.

In fact, the warmer weather made me think about a lighter dinner dish. Having headed out to a meeting today, I had the misfortune to endure a decidedly unhealthy lunch that involved a grilled cheese sandwich with slices of mealy tomato worked into it. The tomato, like more store-bought specimens at this time of year, resembled the insulation from Barbie's Dream House (TM, I'm sure) more than it did a tomato, and it tasted even less appetizing.

When I got home after the meeting, my eye landed on the few remaining local tomatoes ripening on the windowsill, and I decided that even though it wouldn't be the same as a tomato fresh off the vine, I had to have one of those local tomatoes to wipe out the taste of the other. (Nosher, once again, you inspire me.)

Granted, this tomato still proved to be mealy, but it definitely had more flavor than what I found at lunchtime, and after sautéing it with local garlic, a sprinkling of crumbled dried local basil, and a dash of cinnamon (try it, it's surprisingly good), I poured my makeshift sauce over a small dish of cubed Bulgarian feta, allowing the warmth of the tomato sauce to melt the cheese ever so slightly.

It's not haute cuisine, and it's certainly not as good as it would be in August or September with truly fresh tomatoes and basil, but it more than made up for my lunch. The feta was creamy and salty, and the tomato sauce brought a tangy sweetness to it all.

You'll be seeing more of this feta soon, because now that I've dipped into it, I'll be craving it for a while. It's that good, and Mitch Heat knows how much I love good food.

I guess I'll just have to resign myself to my feta...

Going to Seed

We're having a temporary little heat wave here in northern Ohio, sending the January temps into -- I kid you not -- the high 60s. Whew!

Seeing patches of green and smelling the dirt, then, has awakened my craving to plunge my fingers into the warming soil of my own garden. It's been three years since I had any semblance of an outdoor garden, and I miss it.

Thanks to a couple of friends, though, I hope to change all that in a few short months. The Innkeeper and I have worked out a plan to plant a couple of herb beds out the kitchen door at the Inn, with a possible small vegetable patch behind the shed (depending on how much light it will get). And the Absent-Minded Professor, possessing an itchy little green thumb himself, has offered to terrace part of his backyard so that I can put in a garden while his family is busy with other things this summer.

So it's a very good thing that I've been poring over two wonderful seed catalogs recently. Despite its lack of photos or color, the Fedco Seeds catalog is a treat to read for its vivid descriptions of fruits and vegetables and the experiences of hardy gardeners and farmers. (Their illustrations, some of a much earlier vintage, can be a riot, too!) I've dog-eared a number of pages and plan to put in a big order with the hope of growing a few varieties of beans for drying, some carrots, plenty of greens, some edible flowers, lots of herbs (at the Inn), and a handful of other items.

The Johnny's Selected Seeds catalog, on the other hand, is packed with color photos and many other varieties, so I suspect I will order a few things from them as well. (One of their Asian greens looks a lot like the Chinese "broccoli" that the fair Titania and I loved to get for dim sum years ago.)

I'm sure that, like many enthusiastic gardeners and farmers, I will probably overshoot myself and get more than I can plant. But how can I resist? My Dear Papa has agreed to help me maintain the one garden (since I offered him plenty of space for his beloved tomatoes), and the other is on my way home from work, so as long as I schedule garden time, I stand a chance of keeping up. (Famous last words, I know...)

Just give me some seeds, a patch of rich soil, and a beautiful day. I am so ready to dig my fingers into the garden again.

Anything is possible!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Knife Lessons

Contrary to some of the friendly jibes I get from friends, I'm not anti-technology. True, I see no need for a microwave or a wide number of other kitchen gadgets, and -- horror of horrors! -- I refuse to own a cell phone.

That doesn't mean that I don't occasionally see a valid reason for accepting new technology into my life if, on balance, it will prove useful. (As an example, consider my new mixer.) Yes, I prefer doing things the "old-fashioned" way -- with older technologies that don't wear out so fast -- but I want the occasional time-saver, just like anyone else, as long as it will truly save me time, money, and energy in the long run.

One of my favorite gadgets has been a four-in-one mixer that includes an immersion blender and a mini food processor as well as beaters and dough hooks. The first two attachments have proven the most useful in my kitchen, and I've loved having them.

You'll notice the past tense in that paragraph, for thanks to my sheer clumsiness at dropping the machine or its components, as well as its not-so-sturdy plastic parts, the blender and the food processor no longer function.

Thus begins the inner debate. Do I attempt to replace those components, possibly spending more than I had originally spent? (Do I have to replace the base, which means I might just as well start over?) Do I look into getting a good processing attachment for the new KitchenAid and ditch the old hand-held? Or do I get by on doing things by hand?

For today, I opted for the latter since I was just starting another batch of Bri's fabulous macaroni and cheese. I don't keep panko bread crumbs on hand, but I had ripped up the heels of a loaf of locally-baked bread and meant to buzz them in the food processor to get the crumbs I needed.

When the food processor made a muted whirring noise and failed to work, I grumbled a bit and reached for my cutting board and chef's knife.

Not having made bread crumbs by hand before, I wasn't sure how long it would take, but I knew it could be done. So I worked down and up and side to side and chopped and chopped and chopped, eventually working to the rhythm of a fast set of Celtic tunes on the stereo. I felt the burn in my bicep, but boy, it worked!

While they didn't all end up finely minced, they certainly turned out to be a good size for topping the mac and cheese and for adding a little extra texture to an otherwise creamy dish.

(The sauce for the pasta I ended up working with a pastry blender and a lot of patience... not the most effective method as the sauce had some lumps in it, but it mostly worked.)

Will I go ahead and get a new food processor? Probably, as it is definitely a useful tool -- unless someone has a recommendation for a good old-fashioned tool that would do the trick for things like this. I'm just awfully glad that over the years I've been able to hone my knife skills so that I wouldn't be too daunted at using my chef's knife for Plan B... or even Plan A, in some cases.

What can I say? That's knife!

Friday, January 04, 2008

This Site Accepts Cookies

Well, my Christmas baking might be done, and I may have given away almost all of the sweet stuff I made (with the exception of the last of the biscotti and the peppermint twists), but other folks are still churning out the goodies.

Dear Reader Tina, whose holiday baking is often delayed due to family visits at Christmas, sent off a selection of her cookies this week, and the box arrived today.

I always look forward to Tina's cookies: like me, she offers up a wide variety of flavors, and each one has its distinctive goodness to savor. Starting from the upper right of the photo and working clockwise, you'll find sugar cookies, oatmeal-peanut butter bars with chocolate frosting, lemon bars, cinnamon stars (better than even last year's!), chocolate mint cookies, candied ginger-cardamom bars (my favorite!), and candied orange and lemon peel in the middle.

I confess that when I opened the box, I opened each individually-labeled bag and sampled each kind of cookie... um, twice. Hey, what can I say? They're that good.

So thanks so much, Tina, for making my day and filling my belly with your delectable baking!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Twist and Shout

I don't usually drag out the holiday baking for this long, but since I set myself a goal of making several different breads for Christmas (about which you can read more over at The Ethicurean), it has taken me a while to find time for them all.

For the final pastry, I thought I'd modify a sweet roll recipe to combine the flavors of dried peppermint and dark chocolate. I can't stand candy canes, but I thought that twisted bread sticks laced with home-grown mint might be more to my liking.

So before breakfast this morning, I started making a half-whole-wheat dough (with local flour), sweetened lightly with local honey, containing local dried milk and local eggs, and sprinkled with dried peppermint from my old garden.

Once the dough had risen, I rolled it out into a long, narrow (ish) rectangle. Then I made a sauce from melting unsweetened chocolate and butter together, with some homemade peppermint sugar thrown in for good measure.

I smeared the sauce over half the dough, working lengthwise, before lifting the uncovered half over the sauce and pressing the edges closed.

I cut the dough into inch-wide strips and then lifted them carefully (the sauce wanted to ooze out in spots) to a parchment-covered baking sheet, twisting them along the way.

But even though they looked very tempting at this point, I still needed to bake them! I sprinkled a few with more peppermint sugar and slid them into the oven, pan after pan full of fragrant rolls.

They turned out impressively huge and, surprisingly, not very sweet, which made them the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea. (And just imagine dunking these delights into homemade hot cocoa!)

I shared some with the Original Organic Farmer when she came to tea this afternoon, and she expressed her enthusiastic approval. But I still have plenty left over, so I'll have to find some hungry friends who will give more of the twists a good home!